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Team of Dysfunctional Rivals

by Kevin Van Dyke
December 1, 2008

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, has been all the rage lately, as President-elect Obama frequently cites it as a book that he has a learned a lot from. For the sake of our country, I hope he is also consulting other sources on the subject.

There is nothing wrong with Goodwin’s book, in the same sense that there is nothing wrong with most historical fiction. Dr. Goodwin is a wonderful writer and an even better cult of personality. She takes history to the mainstream in a way  that a purer academic historian never could. This is to be highly admired. Her eulogy at Tim Russert’s memorial service was graceful and poignant. However, her work should fact checked with other works.

Historical Fact Check

In an excellent op-ed piece in the November 19 issue of the New York Times, historian and Lincoln expert James Oakes wrote about how dysfunctional Lincoln’s cabinet was. This is an excellent read.

In this light, let’s go through some popular myths about Lincoln’s team of rivals that Oakes dismisses.  Not all these myths are portrayed in Team of Rivals, but each has become part of the conventional wisdom.  As such, many of the quasi-facts in Goodwin’s book have taken on a life of their own in the meme of the talking heads.

Myth 1: Lincoln selected rivals from other political parties.

This is not fact. Lincoln selected other Republican rivals, but not Democratic ones.

Myth 2: This practice was unique and unprecedented.

Far from it, this was common practice in that day. Many horribly unsuccessful Presidents, such as Lincoln’s predecessor James Buchanan also followed this practice. Oakes does a good job of giving us the history here. Does anyone remember stories of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr? Hate to tell you, but those rivals were both part of Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet.

Myth 3: The cabinet worked well together.

Oakes dismisses this and seems to say that Lincoln succeeded not because of his cabinet, but in spite of it.

You may ask, why all this matters. It matters in the current context because if Obama is going to use Goodwin’s book for historical guidance in selecting his cabinet, it is important to know what really happened back in the 1860s. With this knowledge, perhaps one can better judge whether someone like Hillary Clinton is the best choice.

Is this proposed “team of rivals” model better than classic JFK-LBJ cabinet groupthink that got us into the Bay of Pigs, and arugably led to the disaster in Vietnam? Of course.  Is it better than the one-man fiat of the last eight years (by the way, that one man is not George W. Bush)? Of course. However, we should be careful to draw historical parallels from half-truths and a good story.  Also, we should try to back up a step and determine whether one Republican and one Hillary Clinton truly make a team of rivals.

Finally, even if we 1.) assume that Obama is aiming for a team of rivals,  2.) that he is drawing lessons from Kearns Goodwin, and 3.) that Kearns Goodwin’s outline of this history was completely accurate (huge ifs), we would still need to consider the contextual differences that make extending such broad lessons next to impossible. As divided between red and blue the United States may seem, this not 1860, and we are much more united as a country than many partisans would like to admit.

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4 Responses to “Team of Dysfunctional Rivals”

  1. nat on December 4th, 2008 12:05 am

    This column does beg the question of just what sort of model the author thinks is best suited for the choosing of a presidential cabinet. (OK, so he rules out the JFK/LBJ and Cheney models, but what model does he think that should be used as a template?)

  2. Kevin Van Dyke, Editor on December 4th, 2008 12:38 am

    I’m not sure what Dr. Oakes would recommend. As for myself, I don’t think there should be a strict “model” per say. I think FDR’s cabinet is probably the closest modern historical example. He had a lot of strong voices in there, but at the end of the day he made the final decisions. In practice, I think Obama is actually modeling himself more after FDR than Lincoln, which I think is a good thing. Of course, there are contextual limitations to this as well. No matter how it looks some days, it’s not the 1930’s.

    An interesting caveat to this is that Obama has been recently seen reading books on FDR. Overall, most historians rank Lincoln and FDR as two of the best three presidents ever (if not 1, 2), so it’s definitely encouraging that he seems to be a student of both.

    We just need to make sure that we’re all familiar with the real history of these two men, both good and bad….

  3. nat on December 4th, 2008 12:53 pm

    Just out of idle curiosity, are there any books/literature that compare the cabinets of the commonly rated best and worst presidencies? Also, how much time will elapse before academic historians begin to weigh in on Bush II’s presidency?

  4. Kevin Van Dyke, Editor on December 5th, 2008 1:49 am


    No I don’t know of any books off the top of my head, although I’m sure there is definitely some literature on the topic. In fact, given the current presidential cycle, I wouldn’t be surprised if some historian wasn’t currently wrting about this very topic. I’ll look into it and post anything I may find.

    Also, in case you’re interested, here’s a list of FDR’s cabinet members:

    I find it amazing that 4 or 5 of these people served for over 10 years. Now a days, a cabinet member hardly ever serves more than one term, let alone four.

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